Habitat Program

The goal of the Habitat Program is to monitor, assess, restore, enhance, and protect important marine habitat to support healthy marine ecosystems. Program elements include planning responses to oil spills, chemical accidents, and other emergencies in coastal areas; permit review (e.g., wind energy, power plant and RIPDES, infrastructure, dredging, dredge spoil disposal, habitat restoration, etc.); eelgrass monitoring and protection; oyster monitoring and restoration; and habitat monitoring, assessment, and enhancement. Much of this work is conducted in partnership or collaboration with state, federal, NGO, industry, and academic institutions. A summary of selected program elements is included below.

Fish Habitat Enhancement in the Coastal Ponds
The DMF is partnering with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and researchers from Northeastern University to evaluate techniques that improve fisheries habitat in the coastal ponds along the south shore of RI. The goal of this project is to determine if oyster reef construction can be used to improve productivity of structure orientated recreationally important juvenile fish such as black sea bass (Centropristis striata), tautog (Tautoga onitis), scup (Stenotomus chrysops), and species that utilize soft-bottom perimeter such as summer flounder (Paralichthys dentatus), and winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus). Oyster reefs create important habitat for many marine species, providing juvenile finfish increased forage and protection from predators. To determine if the abundance and assemblage of finfish on reefs differ from that on unenhanced bottom (i.e., controls) we’ve employed a Before-After-Control-Impact (BACI) design. Fish surveys are conducted once per month from May to October utilizing gillnets, eel pots, and minnow traps. Oyster monitoring is conducted in the spring and fall of each year to collect data to assess the health and status of each reef.

To date, DMF and TNC have conducted baseline monitoring, constructed 17 fish habitat enhancement reefs, and continue post-construction fish and oyster monitoring in Ninigret and Quonochontaug Pond. The final phase of this work is to extend this work into Pt Judith Pond in 2018. We plan to begin the baseline (preconstruction) fish monitoring this spring. Preliminary results look promising and we’re optimistic that the fish habitat enhancement reefs created here in RI will provide a similar response as those in the Gulf of Mexico and the Mid-Atlantic. This project is supported with funding from the DMF, TNC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Program. A video about this work is available and for more information please contact Eric Schneider.

Fish Habitat Assessment and Enhancement Plan for Providence and Seekonk Rivers
In response to the improving water quality, DMF in partnership with TNC initiated a multi-year collaborative project to assess the distribution and quality of marine habitats and fish assemblages in the Providence and Seekonk Rivers. The goal of this work is to identify locations for future fish habitat enhancement work. A seine survey focusing on 12 stations, combined with benthic video transects and water quality measurements, were initiated in summer 2016. This work has continued, with the addition of fish pots in 2017. This information will be used to develop plans for habitat enhancement and restoration projects aimed to improve fish habitat. This project is supported with funding from the DMF, TNC, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Program. For more information about this work please contact Eric Schneider.

Oyster Reef Restoration
DMF partners with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and RI oyster aquaculturists to conduct Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) reef restoration as part of the NRCS EQIP Oyster Restoration Program. The goal of the EQIP Oyster Restoration Program is to create sustainable oyster habitats and oyster reefs in sanctuary areas in RI waters. The restoration work involves creating oyster reefs and conducting post-enhancement monitoring to assess reef health and success. The specific practices include placing cultch (weathered oyster or surf clam shell) in subtidal waters to enhance oyster recruitment (i.e., cultch only reefs), and in most scenarios seeding that cultch with juvenile oysters (i.e., seeded oyster reefs). Restoration under this program has occurred in two phases. Phase I, from 2008-2011, involved creating approximately 117 reefs. Phase II began in 2015 and is expected to run through 2022. To date Phase II has created 100 seeded reefs and 10 unseeded cultch-only reefs. Monitoring will continue through the end of the funding cycle. For more information about this work please contact Eric Schneider.

Eelgrass Conservation and Monitoring
To minimize the impact of traditional chain moorings on bottom habitat, DEM staff are investigating the benefits of utilizing conservations moorings. Conservation moorings use a buoyant bungee-like cord or floating, flexible rode to minimize mooring chain contact with the seafloor. This setup reduces the “halo-effect” in seagrass beds caused by traditional chain moorings dragging along the bottom. Protecting essential fish habitat, such as eel grass (Zostera marina), helps provide shelter and food resources for juvenile finfish and can facilitate the recruitment and growth of aggregating shellfish like the bay scallop (Argopecten irradians). This project was funded by NOAA and the Atlantic Coastal Fish Habitat Partnership (ACFHP). More information can be found at Sailors for the Sea and through Eric Schneider.